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April 1, 1998
Vol. 55
No. 7

Teacher Talk That Makes a Difference

When school faculties develop the skills of dialogue and discussion, they learn how to transform their talk into meaningful communication that improves relationships and makes a real difference for student learning.

An elementary school staff was struggling with the problem of reduced money for instructional aides. Although consensus and fairness were their goals, they reported that they felt like turkeys being asked to vote on the merits of Thanksgiving. No one really wanted his or her aide time cut. One 1st grade teacher was adamant: She would lose aide time "over my dead body." Six months later, as part of a schoolwide effort supporting development of literacy and reading skills, this same teacher volunteered to share her classroom aide with a 3rd grade tutoring program "if it will really make a difference in those students' learning to read."
What happened? In six months these teachers learned to practice two different ways of talking—dialogue and discussion (see fig. 1). They adopted specified norms of collaboration; and, individually, they focused on their capabilities for professional discourse and openly reflected on these to improve personal and collective practice.

Figure 1. Ways of Talking

These capacities form the core of a professional community. Such communities talk about hard issues; they honor cognitive conflict and minimize affective conflict (Amason et al. 1995), and they make decisions based on objective data, shared values, and deep examination of mental models. They measure success by increased student learning and adults' satisfaction with their work.
Developing a staff's capacities for talking together professionally is no magic bullet. But it may be the single most significant investment faculties can make for student learning.

Different Ways of Talking

Conversation is informal talking in which participants can learn from one another or simply enjoy one another's company. But when conversation begins to take on a consciously organized purpose—that is, the group must now either deepen understanding or make a decision—they have reached a place of deliberation—a choice point: They can choose to move toward either dialogue or discussion. Although dialogue and skilled discussion use many of the same capabilities and tools, their core intentions are quite different.
Dialogue leads to collective meaning making and shared understanding. It builds a sense of connection and belonging, and creates an emotional and cognitive safety zone where ideas flow for examination without judgment. It connects individuals to their underlying motivations and mental models. This form of talk is the foundation for coherent, sustained effort and community building. In dialogue we hear phrases like, "An assumption I have is that. . . ."
Discussion leads to decisions that stay made. Skillful discussions display rigorous critical thinking, mutual respect, weighing of options, and decision making that serves the group's vision, values, and goals. In discussion we might hear comments like, "We need to clarify our goals before talking about solutions."
Most school staffs are unaware that they can choose a way of talking that is different from the culturally embedded norms. Our media-saturated world bombards us with arguments framed by commentators as point-counterpoint, pro and con, left versus right, and other polarities. We carry these images into our conversations. They frame how we listen to others and how we speak. If we are not careful, we listen not to understand but to hear the errors or logical gaps in others' presentations, or we jump in to make a point. Conversations then break down into verbal combat, with winners and losers. All too often, valued colleagues become conscientious objectors, choosing not to participate. The group then loses perspective and alternative viewpoints. The loudest or most persistent voices become the policymakers, and in the worst cases, the process sows seeds of passive noncompliance or sabotage within those who feel excluded.
When groups understand that they have alternative ways of talking, they consciously decide to pursue dialogue or discussion. They may explicitly mark agenda items as one or the other; important matters require both. For really important issues, the two ways of talking may occur in separate sessions. This option is especially important if personal reflection will add to the quality of the decision.
As group members become more sophisticated with ways of talking, the pathways become more malleable. For example, during a dialogue, someone senses an emerging consensus on an issue. He or she then inquires if this is so and frames a proposal to move the item. In another case, during a discussion, emotions rise and the facts become muddied. Someone then proposes that the group switch to a dialogue format for a set period of time to explore the feelings and underlying issues that are present (see fig. 2).

Figure 2. Shifting from Discussion to Dialogue


  • “These test data point to a need to change our spelling program.”

  • “I don't think it's the program; I think it's the test.”

  • “I don't think it's either one; I think it's attitude.”


  • “Wait a minute. this is sounding messier than it first looked. Can we shift to dialogue and explore our assumptions about what's going on with our kids and spelling?”


  • “We seem to have three topics before us; the test scores, kids' skills, and their attitude toward spelling tests. I'm wondering whether there are other elements in this mix.”

  • “Help us understand what you think some of these other elements might be.”


A Closer Look at Dialogue

Dialogue is a reflective learning process in which group members seek to understand one another's viewpoints and deeply held assumptions. The word dialogue comes from the Greek dialogos. Dia means "through" and logos means "the word." In this process of "meaning making through words," group members inquire into their own and one another's beliefs, values, and mental models to better understand how things work in their world. Each participant does much of the deepest work internally.
Suspension is the essential internal skill in dialogue. When we suspend judgment, we set aside for a time our perceptions, feelings, judgments, and impulses and monitor carefully our own internal experience. Suspension requires being alert to our listening and doing something about our thinking in the moment. Points of personal conflict can easily emerge; we feel others are not hearing us or they are distorting our points of view. We may barely be aware of our anger or uneasiness, yet our discomfort influences our listening and can influence how we respond, which in turn can influence other group members. Suspension also involves becoming aware of our assumptions and "hanging them from the ceiling"—suspended in front of the group so all can examine them. Assumptions are beliefs—often unexamined—of why things work as they do. They drive our perceptions, simultaneously opening and blinding us to certain awarenesses.
Participants should recognize a potential pitfall in the process of dialogue—conviviality. When a group confuses safety with comfort, it sacrifices productive tension for the ease of conviviality. Humor and banter can be avoidance strategies as much as they can be social lubricants. Too high a comfort level weakens dialogue and undermines the learning possibilities of the moment.

A Closer Look at Discussion

  • Distinguishing between verifiable facts and value claims
  • Distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, claims, or reasons
  • Determining the factual accuracy of a statement
  • Determining the credibility of a source
  • Identifying ambiguous claims or arguments
  • Identifying unstated assumptions
  • Detecting bias
  • Identifying logical fallacies
  • Recognizing logical inconsistencies in a line of reasoning
  • Determining the strength of an argument or claim
The term discussion shares linguistic roots with words such as percussion, concussion, and discuss. In its most ineffective form, discussion is a hurling of ideas at one another. Often it takes the form of serial sharing and serial advocacy. Participants attempt to reach decisions through a variety of either voting or consensus techniques. When discussion is unskilled and dialogue is absent, decisions are often of poor quality, represent the opinions of the most vocal members or the leader, lack group commitment, and do not stay in place.
Skilled discussions take place within a shape known to the participants. Three elements help form this shape: (1) clarity about decision-making processes and authority, (2) knowledge of the boundaries surrounding the topics open to a group's decision-making authority, and (3) standards for orderly decision-making meetings (Garmston and Wellman in press).
Like the skill of suspension in dialogue, a parallel set of mental skills helps participants engage in skillful discussion. We call this set of skills "the balcony view," a perceptual position that is neither egocentric (I am intensely aware of my thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and know my own boundaries) nor allocentric (I am aware of how something looks, feels, and sounds from the point of view of another). The balcony view is macrocentric. (With compassion or detachment, I understand the nature of the situation. Looking down at my interaction with the group, I gain the most knowledge—about me, about the group, and about our interactions—and I can make the most strategic decisions about my participation. When do I press, when do I probe for detail or let it go, how do I phrase ideas for greatest influence?) This is the same skill that teachers employ when they "monitor and adjust" in their classroom.
Just as participants in dialogue must watch out for the conviviality pitfall, so participants in discussion must be wary of straying from skilled discussion to an unskilled use of debate. When this happens, the group has overshot useful advocacy for ideas and landed in a place of listening only for logical fallacy and arguments to "beat down" (the Latin origin of debate) the ideas of others.

Seven Norms That Enhance Teacher Talk

  1. Pausing
  2. Paraphrasing
  3. Probing for specificity
  4. Putting ideas on the table
  5. Paying attention to self and others
  6. Presuming positive intentions
  7. Balancing advocacy and inquiry
These tools are extrapolations our colleague Bill Baker has made from the Cognitive Coaching Model (Costa and Garmston 1994; Baker et al. 1997) and the work of Peter Senge and his colleagues (1994). When school faculties turn these seven tools into norms—normal operating behaviors in formal and informal interactions within the school—adult relationships improve, groups work skillfully to explore members' mental models and assumptions, and both discussion and dialogue are served.
Of all the norms, balancing advocacy and inquiry requires the most cognitive, emotional, and moral sophistication and creates the most profound shifts in group thinking and relationships. It is one way for individuals, by themselves, to begin changing a large organization from within (Senge et al. 1994).
When advocating, group members make their thinking and reasoning visible by stating their assumptions, distinguishing data from inference, and giving examples. Members also test their assumptions and conclusions by revealing what they are least certain about, staying open to other interpretations, and encouraging others to explore their thinking. When inquiring into others' views, members check for understanding, ask others to make their reasoning visible, invite introspection, and explain their reasons for inquiring (Garmston and Wellman in press). Groups that learn to do this well are astounded by the results. A group in Iowa recently used these processes to talk about the most important ideas for students to learn in math. "We never had anything like this before," said one superintendent. "The group was intense, focused, and learning from one another. Previously this kind of topic would have had us griping."

Four Capabilities That Enhance Group Work

  1. Knowing one's intentions and choosing congruent behaviors.
  2. Setting aside unproductive patterns of listening, responding, and inquiring.
  3. Knowing when to self-assert and when to integrate.
  4. Knowing and supporting the group's purposes, topics, processes, and development.
Opportunities for private reflection and public conversation about these capabilities vastly increase members' group skills and frequently bring members closer together as they share what is usually not shared.

Round-Robin Reflection

Certain structures bring safety to groups so that members can experience useful discomfort and accelerate their learning. One such structure that leads rapidly to improved group conversations is something we call "round-robin reflection." In this process, everyone takes 30 seconds to silently respond to two questions: (1) What are some of the decisions I made about when and how to participate in this conversation? (2) What were some of the effects of my decisions for me and for the group?
Next, a facilitator chooses someone at random to begin talking to the group about their responses. When this person is finished, the group pauses. Next, another member paraphrases what they have heard and respectfully asks for clarification, more information, and so on. Now, in round-robin fashion, the person to the right of the first speaker talks to the group and the process is repeated.

Getting Started

  1. Overview. Provide groups with a rationale and a map for the two ways of talking (see fig. 1). Within this frame we add key details about the seven norms, the four capabilities, the purposes of dialogue and discussion, and approaches to constructive conflict. This overview is intended to create dissatisfaction with the current state of team and working-group performance and provide a glimpse of productive ways of working together.
  2. Inventory. Inventorying members' perceptions of how the group uses the norms reveals beliefs about current operating practices. Groups then can select one or two norms to develop and can establish monitoring systems to improve their use of the map and tools. Inventories can be simple rating scales ranking personal and collective use of each norm, or more detailed questionnaires detailing subsets of each norm (Baker et al. 1997).
  3. Monitor. Any group that is too busy to reflect on its work is too busy to improve. Every working group has far more task than time and so is naturally reluctant to spend time monitoring and reflecting on its working processes. Many groups commit themselves to a task/process ratio to overcome this tendency and budget a protected percentage of each meeting for examining how well the group is working and what it might do to improve.
Reflection can take many forms. The least effective way involves a process observer—a special role for gathering data about the frequency or distribution of behaviors the group feels are important. Because this places the gathering of data outside group members, members ultimately become less accurate in gathering their own data and self-assessments. The most effective way is through reflection on the four capabilities described earlier. This can occur through journal writing, round-robin reflection, and dialogue focused on personal and collective learning about the power of attention to process.
Human beings are a social species. Living and working in groups is an important part of our genetic heritage. It is ironic, then, that in many schools, professionals who are charged with preparing students to be successful, collaborative citizens are themselves cut off from the rich resources offered by true collegiality. That we talk together in our schools is vitally important in these changing times. How we talk is as important, for it is how we talk that influences the personal and collective satisfaction that motivates us to continue talking together in our schools.

Amason, A.C., K.R. Thompson, W.A. Hochwarter, and A.W. Harrison. (August 1995). "Conflict: An Important Dimension in Successful Management Teams." Organizational Dynamics 24, 2: 20-35.

Baker, W., A. Costa, and S. Shalit. (1997). "The Norms of Collaboration: Attaining Communicative Competence." In The Process-Centered School, Sustaining a Renaissance Community, edited by A.L. Costa and R.M. Liebmann. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Beyer, B.K. (1987). Practical Strategies for the Teaching of Thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Costa, A., and R. Garmston. (1994). Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools. Norwood, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon.

Garmston, R., and B. Wellman. (in press). The Adaptive School: Developing and Facilitating Collaborative Groups. Norwood, Mass.: Christopher-Gordon.

Senge, P.M., A. Kleiner, C. Roberts, R.B. Boss, and B.J. Smith. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

Robert Garmston has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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